In for a penny, fully custom keyboard with U4T, YMDK 117, and Keychron K6 (K8 Pro)
OK, I've been spending way too much time in the keyboard hobby, now that I have basically every variant of factory-made keyboards, it's time to go off the deep end and build my own keyboard, so here is what I've learned for those of you who want to dive deep.
Bluetooth Hot-swappable Keyboard
I wanted a Bluetooth keyboard with great switches and keycaps so I am getting, so here are some choices thanks to Digiva and Virtual Tilt but the main desirable things are a small layout that is either 68 keys (60%) or 84 keys (75%) with Bluetooth and a battery in them plus having some sort of programmability.
If you don't need wireless, the Digiva has a great list of swappable keyboards particularly from GMMK (although after you read about the great Holy Panda controversy, you might want to stay away from them given their marketing of Glorious Panda and anything Drop is doing as well).
The net of this is that waiting for the Keychron K8 Pro since it is coming in a few months seems like the smart choice:
- Keychron K8 Pro available March 2022.What I really want is the upcoming K8 Pro which is a bigger TKL keyboard with 104 keys coming in the spring which will feature programmability with QMK or Via that is going to cost $150, but will have double-shot PBT keycaps, sound absorbing foam and a south-facing RGB, that is going to be a nice premium offering as it will support 3-pin or 5-poin MX-style switched and it will come barebones as well.
- Keychron K6. This is a 68-key keyboard or 65%, so smaller than the Keychron K2 (which comes up often as the best 75% or 87 key keyboard) that I've used. There are alot of Keychron models It's one of the only keyboards I've found that is Bluetooth 5 and hotswappable with arrow keys which is what I really need. For $95 not expensive and the Bluetooth works well. The other favorite is the AnnePro v2 which I also like but it's not hot swappable.
- EPOMAKER GK68XS and GK87S. This has Bluetooth 5.1 and RGB and there are both 68 key and 87 key versions. it is also programmable and works with MX 3-pin and 5-pin. But beware it has a small 1900 mah battery and spotty bluetooth
- KP Republic MKB97 TKL. This is an 87 key Blutetooth RGB key with a battery that 1900 mAh for $78 but you get what you pay for wired for 3 or 5 pin MX. The main problem is that the Bluetooth doesn't seem reliable with a Mac and it is Bluetooth 3.0 not 5.1
- KP Republic MXRSKEY 84U. This is another no-name branded that is a 75% keyboard with 5-pions and bluetooth but is also not customizable and also has reliablility issues for $69
You can definitely spend more on a custom keyboard. For example at Cannon Keys, they have a group buy for a $400 keyboard that is wireless but is without a battery. For Wu Que studio it has a custom blasted aluminum plate and for $709 a brass one. That sounds nice!
And then KBDFans is a big site that has the Tofu75 which is a go-to bare board. It was $130 but it is wired. It has underflow and is programmable. And their Tofu65 is also LED per key and programmable but not wireless or the $330 Blade65 Limited Edition.
The Perfect Switch maybe: Gazzew Boba G4T Thock
Gazzew Boba G4T RGB Clear Top Switches. Well, as soon as you get off the reservation and start finding niche switches, not just Cherry MX Blues for instance there is an entire world of folks modding keyboards all the time. ThereminGoat and Next Rift has terrific reviews of zillions of these and at the top of many lists comes the Gazzew U4T 62g This is a very niche switch that is made in limited production by a switch enthusiast who designs and then gets made his own switch sets.
The U4T comes in a bunch of different variants, there is Nixdork which is supposed to have less wobble, and the RGB variant which has a clear plastic housing, so the RGB light comes out of a keyboard. Most hot-swappable keyboards are going to use SMB LEDs that are in the keyboard itself.
The LEDs are surface mounted (SMD) so the light shines up through the keys and if you have double shot keycaps (see below), then you can have the light come out of the letters which are pretty nice.
Having used this keyboard for about two weeks or so and it is right now my favorite key switch although I dearly love the Kailh Box Whites as well.
Where to buy niche keyboard junk: Liligecko
These things are super hard to get, but you can use Gazzew's authorized dealers as a first list. For instance, Stupidtech in Oregon has them not for $6.50 for 10 which is pretty reasonable although the 62g version is sold out right now. Liligecko in California also has them and they are in stock or swagkeys in Korea. As an aside, Gazzew's real name is u/hbheroinbob or Tao or Paul depending on what you read and he's living in Arizona making switches like crazy!
Upgrading the existing keycaps know your keyboard configuration
Well, now that I have a bunch of keyboards that are not hot-swappable, one thing to do is to upgrade the keycaps so that ideally they are using double shot (so the legend won't wear off), pudding (so light shines through them) PBTs (not ABS which gets shiny) which are the nicest. There is a great site called Digiva Network which has lists of compatible upgrades for keycaps because it is a little complicated. Basically, if you look at a standard keyboard, most keys are the standard "1u" or one unit. But some keys are bigger. For instance, usually the Ctrl and Alt keys are bigger at 1.25 units or 1.25u. The good keycap sets come with a variety of keys so that you can have things that fit.
It will be a while and hard to judge whether the K8 Pro will have the same keyboard layout as the K8 but I'm hoping that the new PBTs they use are going to be better than the current K8 keycap set.
For reference, the sizes needed for the K8 are in standard Row 1, R1, through Row 4, R4:
- R1: Ctrl, Option, Command 1.25u, Spacebar 6.25u, Command, Option, Fn and Ctrl at 1.25u on the right
- R1: Shift 2.25u, Right shift 2.75u
- R2: Caps Lock 1.75u, Return is 2.25u
- R3: Tab 1.5u on left and right
- R3: Backspace 2u
While there are no K8 guides, the very similar Digiva K2 guide is nice. The K2 has a layout that is smaller for Row 1, but then identical for the rest:
- R1 Ctrl, Option, Space is 6.25u on the left are 1.25u (the right is smaller than K8)
- R1 Shift 2.25u, right shift is 1.75u (smaller right shift)
- R2: Capslock 1.75U, Return is 2.25u (the same)
- R3: Tab is 1.5u and \| is 1.5u (the same)
- R4: Backspace is 2u (the same)
And finally, the K6 also has a Digiva guide for its keyboard which since it is basically the k2 without row 5 is identical so if it works for the K2, it will work for the K6:
- R1. Ctrl, Cmd and option are 1.25u, space is 6.25u like the K2
- R1. Left shift is 2.25u and right is 1.75u. Same as K2
- R2. Caps lock 1.75u and Return is 2.25. Same as K2
- R3. Tab is 1.5u and \| is 1.5u as K2. Same as K2
- R4. Backspace is 2u. Same as K2
Some keycap options
So some keycaps that would work are, but none of these are pudding key so the light won't shine through:
- YMDK 117 Pudding. These are one of the only pudding PBT keys so the light shines through the letters. These only come in black but that should work on this gray keyboard. OEM profile. I ended up buying these are they are definitely better than the stock Keychron keys. The main issue is that there are some other things that you want on the keycaps because there are special FN1 and FN2 keys. Also, the YMDK isn't a Mac based keycap, so you need to "change" the Windows keycap to Command then the Option key to ALT, so that is nice with a label maker with the M-231 tape
- GMK Wavez. These are the super premium set that although not PBT and not pudding are great if you can get it on a group buy
- EPOMaker AKKO Silent. This has Cherry profile, out of PBT with a retro look.
- KBDFans PBT DA Dye-Sub. Really cool DA profile and pastel colors. Not pudding
- EnjoyPBT 9009. Like the HK Gaming this is PBT and has the 9009 colors in Cherry profile
- HK Gaming Dye Sub 9009 Keycaps. This follows the look of the old Reuters terminal
- SDYZ White XDA. These use the rounder flat profile XDA
- Drop MT3 Black on White. If you want that deep ibm 3270 retro look and want to risk your dollars on Drop
So what keyboards that are premade are actually very close
- Kailh Box White in an AnnePro v2. I was looking for different factory made and this one caught my eye on Switch & Click as well as Reddit's u/curiosity and I had not heard much about the, but I have to checkout a list where the Cherry MX Blue comes up fifth, with the Kailh BOX Jade and Speed Copper coming up next. I have not tried Kailth before, but they make a box switch which is basically an entire "box" that surround the switch and is built quite differently than the Cherry MX series (and the many clones that came along after their patent expired notably Gateron, although I don't like the Gateron Blues nearly as much). As an aside the Whites are 50g while the Jade are 64g and both a clicky. The Speed switches have a shorter with just a 1.1mm actuation depth vs the typical 1.8mm. And I was able to find this in my current favorite Anne Pro 2 for $100 and it is my second favorite keyboard.
- Realforce R2 TKL Topre. This is the other strange keyboard I'm going to try with the Japanese Topre keys that are combination, so excited about that. They have the Tokyo press keys and Dye sub PBT keycaps. And it is realy close
A word on Keycap Profiles
Besides the type of keycap, one important thing is the profile or how the keys are sloped. Yes, this is actually a thing and there is a huge range you can choose from notably:
- OEM. This is the standard for mass produced keyboards that are scuplted
- Cherry. Yes, the German folks at Cherry have a very popular scupted sytle that is like OEM and typically what folks recommend. Sloped is good because it means the rows farther from you are taller and so you don't have to go as far when you are typing.
But there are some keycaps that give a very different style to your keyboard. For instance uniform keycaps looks really different, they are well flat and give a nice look to the keyboard:
- DSA. These are typically made by Signature Plastic and have a unique look and are relatively smaller at the top.
- XDA. This is uniform and gives the keyboard a flat look but has a big surface area. The keys are more like rounded sqaures
Then there are the old school keyboards for the retro look:
- SA. These are tall and angled with spherical tops. The were made famous by the original IBM PC keyboard the Keyboard F and M. They have a very firm Thock sound when you hit them.
- MT3. These are even stranger and more vertical like the original IBM 3270 keys.
So what keyboards do I have and what's the right upgrade mainly for keycaps
But there are big variances in the size of the spacebar, the shift and enter keys as well as the delete or backspace keys.
- AnnePro v2. Turns out that the base Anne Pro does come with double shot PBT Keycaps and I actually find them pretty nice, they are even pudding so the keycaps glow. Digiva has a good curated list of keycaps that you could upgrade and a complete list of keycap sizes which is great. I'm not sure if I would bother getting new keycaps.
- Varmilo VA87M Mac. This is probably my favorite keyboard in terms of feel with Cherry MX Brown key switches, but the keycaps while they are PBT, they are not pudding, so it is hard to see the letters as they don't glow. So they might be worth upgrading. This is where finding a good seethrough keycap would be worth it.
- WASD CODE. These are my oldest keyboards and they have worked well in both Cherry MX Brown and Blue, but they are ABS keys so they are wearing out but they do shine through so they are pudding keys. That is a good candidate for an update although they are pretty large and wired so not clear if it is worth it. So maybe a nice keycap.
- Qisan Magicforce Smart 68. These are incredibly cheap keyboards with really good quality, it's a wired keyboard with Cherry MX Blue as has double-shot, pudding PBS keys. I'm using it right now and I'm shocked at how good it actually feels. As an aside I'm not actually sure they are Cherry MX Blues because at $80 how could they have done all that, so they may be counterfeits or charitably overselling, but they seem pretty good, butter than the Keychron K2 that I have. It's huge compared with the AnnePro as an aside and wired only, so the AnnePro v2 is just the most compact keyboard you can get.